One of the greatest mysteries that ever faced investigative reporter Irwin Maurice Fletcher (“Fletch” to his friends) is why there haven’t been more movies featuring the character. Gregory Mcdonald’s popular Fletch novels, of which there are 11, were practically all dialogue. The author’s breezy style of repartee — which owed more to Hollywood’s screwball comedy tradition than film noir — should have lent itself well to screenplays, but only two ever got made: Back in the ’80s, we got a couple that positioned Chevy Chase as a goofy sleuth with a penchant for disguise, and others (including Jason Lee, Ben Affleck and Chris Tucker) have been trying to revive him ever since.
Reborn at last with Jon Hamm in the role and Greg Mottola (“Superbad”) behind the camera, “Confess, Fletch” makes no attempt to channel what Chase did before (elaborate costumes, complete with fake hair and teeth), instead going back to Mcdonald’s philosophy that mysteries were but an excuse for a sardonic reporter to wind up other people, be they sources, suspects or professional detectives. The film opens with Fletch discovering a body in his living room (technically, it’s not his place, though his presence there instantly makes Fletch a person of interest for the police). Lifted straight from the book, the call he makes to report it tells us so much about his character.
Fletch had been looking into another crime: A rich man has been kidnapped, and his high-dollar art collection is being asked in ransom. Since Fletch is reasonably certain he wasn’t the murderer, he’s blasé toward the cops assigned to the case — inspector Morris Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.) and his assistant Griz (Ayden Mayeri) — taking his shoes off when called in to their office (“What, hands can parade around naked all day, but god forbid you show a few toes?”) and treating these two officers of the peace as if they were on his payroll.
While they keep an eye on Fletch, he proceeds to snoop around on his own, interviewing a series of weirdos whose connection to the deceased is less memorable than whatever shtick the actors playing them bring to the table. The standout among these is Annie Mumolo as the next-door neighbor who distractedly prepares dinner while Fletch interviews her, slicing open her hand and nearly setting the kitchen on fire in the process. There’s also Kyle MacLachlan as a clean-freak, Marcia Gay Harden as a hot-and-bothered Italian countess (she pronounces his name “Flesh”) and Lucy Punch as a trophy wife all too eager to show off her “bespoke” home furnishings (“it beteaches us something about ourselves”).
Instead of making a big show of going undercover, as suited Chase’s “National Lampoon”-honed sketch-comedy skills, Hamm plays on the obliviousness and gullibility of other characters. When breaking into a country club, he picks up another guest’s blazer and lets others assume what they will about him. He’s slippery with the cops and sly about using connections (“Mad Men” co-star John Slattery makes an appearance as Fletch’s newspaper editor), but not so concerned about covering his tracks elsewhere.
The way Hamm and Mottola have conceived it, Fletch’s technique feels no more sophisticated than some guy trying to fool his dog by pretending to toss the ball then hiding it behind his back. Frankly, it’s no less amusing to watch them fall for it than a meticulously planned and executed investigation might be. Women can’t resist his charm (that part comes easy to Hamm), while others humor him, but in the end, Fletch’s lack of professionalism becomes his brand, like the pothead PIs in “The Big Lebowski” and “Inherent Vice.” By the not-so-big finale, all the suspects are gathered together and Fletch unravels his theory, which is quickly undone the moment another character pulls a gun on him. But at least now he knows who the killer is. There’s more than one way to get a job done — whether it’s solving a murder, recovering priceless art or repainting an old van — and Fletch’s strategy is guaranteed to be more original than whatever the next guy would try.